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Monday, June 02, 2008

Why I am an anti-intellectual

I am sorry to have offended Professor Heller with  what I took to be a lighthearted gibe at Judith Butler.  Although my assessment of her stuff is basically the same as Martha Nussbaum's, I am happy to attribute my mystification at her language to my own intellectual limits -- especially if this admission will excuse me from re-reading the baroque prose of Bodies That Matter (1993).   Life is too short to struggle with an author when the payoff in understanding (for instance) "performativity" seems to be no more than the banal idea that people do stuff to exhibit their gender identity that is, in this sense, "socially constructed."  I'd rather take another go at Kant's transcendental deduction.  But, again, it could be -- probably is -- a sign of my own limitations or even, as Patrick O'Donnell notes, "sour grapes":  I just might lack Professor Heller's depth or patience or humility.

I must, however, highlight one of Professor Heller's statements that I thoroughly endorse: I am most certainly an anti-intellectual.  (I am not a "know-nothing" and hereby declare all-out war on the abuse of this phrase, which expression refers to the American Party of the 1850s or, more generally, nativism, and otherwise is just incoherent blather.  What does it mean to be a "know nothing" in any other sense?  That one admits to, or is proud of, knowing nothing?  That one knows nothing in fact?    Surely, "ignoramus" works better for the latter, and "bigot," for the former).

But to continue:  My confession of being an anti-intellectual requires a bit of explanation.  Being anti-intellectual is not the same as being anti-intellect.  My beef is with a particular social class -- the "intelligentsia" -- and not with the practice of using one's intellect to reflect on experience.  In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humor, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths.  (Whether any of these adjectives applies to Professor Heller's response to my little poke, I leave it for others to judge).

Moreover, I find a direct relationship between the academic obscurity of self-consciously "intellectual" writer's prose and the willingness of that writer to justify the unjustifiable.

It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. In this respect, I stand with George Orwell who spent the 1930s and 1940s denouncing the obscurity of intellectuals' prose as a cloak for tyranny (and, incidentally, who was also accused of being an anti-intellectual). Intellectuals spray polysyllables like squid ink, to evade the democratic decencies of conversation. I'd like not to be one of their number.

I am aware of, but never have been persuaded by, various efforts to justify the deliberate obscurity of intellectuals. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, offered a defense of academic obscurity in the introduction to his book, Distinction. Alas, it was too obscure for me to understand. Instead, I tended to think that the rest of Bourdieu's book provided a better account of the social function of academic obscurity: Obscurity is what Bourdieu dubs "cultural capital." It is akin to knowing to wear white shoes only before Labor Day or which jazz CDs to play at a Upper West Side academic party -- a sort of union card that one can flash for admission to a privileged class.

Judith Butler offered a  defense of her obscurity in the New York Times, in which she argued that obscure prose was necessary to get outside of the oppression built into ordinary language. But she gave no examples of instances in which her prose served such a function, and I remain skeptical. Her standard argument that gender bias is built into language can, I think, be communicated effectively without the name-dropping and byzantine insider jokes that are (again, my view or prejudice) the hallmarks of Butler's style. I tend to think that simple questions simply asked a la Socrates can unveil much more incoherence and oppression in ordinary social conventions that any numbers of references to “hegemonic discourses” and the rest.

This is not to say that obscurity is always unnecessary: Sometimes tough ideas call for tough prose. (Again, think of Kant's transcendental deduction, which cannot easily be translated into plain language, because it asks difficult questions about the most basic grounds of experience and language. Of course, it does not help that Kant was German: The Teutonic style famously lacks the light touch). To my mind, Butler's prose mimics this necessary obscurity like a Viceroy mimics a Monarch butterfly -- to avoid being devoured by predators who are scared off by the appearance of tough ideas that are hard to swallow.

So, yes, I confess to disliking intellectuals and the practice of intellectualism, which, I believe, impedes everyone’s intellect with pretense and ostentation. But I could be wrong about Butler, and I'd be happy to be proven so. After all, I do not pretend to be an intellectual.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 2, 2008 at 04:04 PM in Rick Hills | Permalink


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Like Rick Hills, I'm an "anti-intellectual." I suppose this is due to my belief that there are few, if any, true "intellectuals" around today because of the sheer difficulty it is to acquire an ability to speak with justified... [Read More]

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Rick Hills at Prawfsblawg: (via Instapundit) My confession of being an anti-intellectual requires a bit of explanation. Being anti-intellectual is not the same as being anti-intellect. My beef is with a particular social class -- the "intelligentsia" - [Read More]

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like just about anything, making generalizations and over-simplification are dangerous, at the same time overcomplication can be just as threatening. all-in-all we must find a balance between the two mental aspects of life- reason and affect. if we give way and let our emotions completely dominate our actions we cannot survive as a society or species. if we judge every aspect of life from a striclty logical viewpoint you will be miserable, gtg

Posted by: Luc | Mar 12, 2009 10:01:26 AM

Pardon my naivete, I just navigated to your page by googling for the word 'intellectual'.
I must say for some reason, this particular post really hit me somewhere.
I have seen some so called intellectuals in India who just love to obscure the ideas that they express.
Your comment about obscurity as a defense mechanism used by intellectuals to hide the short-comings in their intellect echoed the feeling that I had for a long time but never heard any one express till now.
In India, I have found so called high-brow intellectuals woefully lacking a pointed intellect. Most being very nebulous thinkers.

Posted by: Anur Puniyani | Oct 16, 2008 8:23:52 AM

I've read about three pages of Butler, and that was enough. Enough because I've read it all before - in Lacan, Foucalt, Lyotard, Derrida, Said, et al. This line of thought will never run out of material because its sole project is to lament the existence and form of reality, in its every aspect. I see nothing wrong with this, but neither do I see it as important - and as the followers of these writers make clear, this is at heart a normative enterprise, with which one is either on board or not. I say leave these thinkers to their insular world of ever more convoluted abstraction until such time as they can make their case to the rest of us, that is, say something coherent and relevant in the context of the everyday world. I rather hope one of them will surprise me and do just that.

Posted by: Matt Norman | Jul 30, 2008 2:58:31 PM

Here's another writer unimpressed by Judith Butler.

"As Dutton argues elsewhere, the objective here (referring to an extract from Butler) is to induce anxiety and play the rube - to exploit the trust of people who stare at such things, find nothing of significance, and assume the fault is theirs. I realise the idea that such a thing can happen, and happen frequently, is taboo. To recognise bad faith of this magnitude requires an unseemly kind of honesty. But, as we’ve seen, these things happen nonetheless. And they continue to happen precisely because the very idea is unthinkable."


He has a few on Judith but many more on Post Modernism in general.

Posted by: TDK | Jun 13, 2008 6:37:49 AM

I take "Why I am an anti-intellectual" to be ironic, but there are good reasons to be against intellectualists. At its best intellectual language is powerful, nimble and beautiful. It is the raw material of our deepest understanding of the world. There is nothing like it.

But much of the intellectual tradition does not meet the standards of the intellectual discipline. Philosophical idealism, in rejecting sense data as the realm of appearances, is cast adrift from the empirical ground of reason. The effects are everywhere. Professor Hills pointed to a Judith Butler article attacking common sense. We've had an intellectual movement which seemed to treat all "facts" as socially constructed.

Another ancient error is the idea of metaphysical certitude as a standard of deductive proof, and the assumption that a thoroughgoing relativism is the only alternative. It is a short step from ethical relativism to the immoralism that Nietzsche ("we immoralists") seemed to advocate, and Lilla's _The Reckless Mind_ suggests that many twentieth-century intellectuals took it.

This is a cat which has yet to be belled. The intellectual problems which Professor Hills responded to suggests the need, not for anti-intellectualism, but for the sort of meta-intellectual analysis for which intellectuals should be supremely qualified--but which has not yet been adequately undertaken.

Posted by: Norm Benthin | Jun 11, 2008 2:47:16 AM

Still her old empire to confirm, she tries,
For born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

Dunciad, Book I

Posted by: Jules Bernard | Jun 10, 2008 1:55:57 PM

If none of Butler's defenders are up to the challenge (whether because of time constraints or other reasons), perhaps they could at least point me to anyone, anywhere, who has explained her insights in plain English? I'm genuinely curious.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 3, 2008 10:51:46 PM

"In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humor, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths."

I see this as the essential point, and assume keeping the comments open is a piece of performance art? The QED, if you will?

Posted by: AndyK | Jun 3, 2008 10:36:13 PM

In general, today's "anti-intellectuals" are far more elitist and snobbish than the "intellectuals" they decry.

Posted by: Andrew Levine | Jun 3, 2008 9:29:13 PM

I only write a comment as I've enjoyed this blog for years: Grow up! Or at least get a moderator who can take charge and not let a comments thread turn out, well, like this one.

Frankly, I would be embarrassed.

Posted by: John Robinson | Jun 3, 2008 5:57:00 PM

Rick and Brian,

First, I want say that I in no way meant to suggest that Rick Hills is homophobic or anything else of the sort. My thesis was that Rick Hills’ two posts were thoughtless, and to illustrate that point, I argued that given a context in which Butler’s work is important to many persons who work on issues of gender and sexuality, one could easily read the wholesale ridicule and dismissal of her work as participating in such viewpoints. Others have assault hers and similar theoretical work wholesale as a way of assaulting feminism as well as gays and lesbians. That fact that the real Rick Hills is not homophobic or a misogynist (I would have been shocked to learn otherwise) only further illustrates my claim about the thoughtlessness of the posts. Incidentally, when I call attention to the larger (textually absent) context in which an author’s post can be read, I am also calling attention to a method of reading Derrida and others advocate. So, one way of understanding some of the points in my initial comment is as an extended, albeit limited, defense of Derrida.

Second, I am mostly happy to accept Brian’s correction that Nussbaum’s argument is not ad hominem. I say mostly, because what I, perhaps sloppily as Brian suggests, meant to call attention to is the tone of condescension that I think pervades her article, which I do think slips into the occasional ad hominem. For example, she sets the stage against the person, not the argument, when she writes: “Judith Butler seems to many young scholars to define what feminism is now. Trained as a philosopher, she is frequently seen (more by people in literature than by philosophers) as a major thinker about gender, power, and the body.” Moreover, she asks why Butler writes in the style she does, and answers with the charge that obscurity “creates the aura of importance.” Criticizing her writing style in this way, and in the context of the Philosophy and Literature prize, seems as much directed at Butler the person as it is the arguments of Butler’s texts. Nussbaum later comments about Butler’s audience, “This implied audience is imagined as remarkably docile. Subservient to the oracular voice of Butler's text, and dazzled by its patina of high-concept abstractness.” Her argument about feminism lays a lot at the feet of Butler as “defining feminism,” and her portrayal of Butler’s readers as “docile” and “subservient” seems ad hominem to me. I was, however, entirely mistaken to paint the whole article and its arguments as ad hominem. I am happy to accept the correction.

I too must finish my grading.

Posted by: Tommy Crocker | Jun 3, 2008 4:58:31 PM

Certainly if one has been immersed in Heidegger, or Peacocke, for quite some time, things can seem relatively clear (and the later Heidegger can sometimes be a beautiful writer). I was assuming the standard of "clarity" to be something like, "fairly accessible to a philosophically educated person," which I fear most of Heidegger is not. I take your point about relative clarity compared to, e.g., Deleuze and certainly Bataille (I don't know that I've ever read anything by the others, beyond some essays on Nietzsche, but long ago).

Posted by: Brian | Jun 3, 2008 3:31:11 PM


I suppose I should take the hint and say I was kidding about Heidegger, given your vastly superior knowledge of philosophy, but I actually wasn't. I loved reading Heidegger in German and found him very easy to understand. But perhaps that's with the "benefit" of years of hindsight and in contrast with the other philosophers I was reading at the time, most of whom I imagine give you conniptions -- Deleuze, Klossowski, Bataille, Blanchot, and the like. So I happily concede the point.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jun 3, 2008 2:50:39 PM

Three quick remarks and, I swear, I'll start grading:

(1) I want to apologize in advance for that last little swipe that I took at Professor Crocker on his lengthy post. But I must confess to being a bit provoked into this immaturity by his insinuation that, because I dislike Judith Butler's prose, therefore, I must somehow be opposed to gay and lesbian equality.

(2) In response to Professor Heller, I would have thought that it was more sporting to pick on a living writer -- one, apparently, with lots of voluble friends -- than a dead one. But I'm happy to sign a truce with both living and dead, along the terms set forth in my last post.

(3) Without attempting a dissertation on intellectuals as a social class, I'd add to David Schleicher's comment this thought: My idea of "intellectuals" might run along the same lines as Adam Smith's idea of "literary men" in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments. (As I recall, Smith denounced them for addiction to petty squabbles, intrigues, and vendettas).

But I really cannot come up with a Theory of the Theory Class right now: I've got to grade 60 more exams. Cheers to all of you, from the Official Philistine of this Blog.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 3, 2008 2:43:16 PM

I've been reading this train wreck with some interest. I commend Dan Markel for stepping in, and preventing the comment section here from degenerating to the level of the Volokh blog, among many others. I found Professor Crocker's remarks not uninteresting, but was astonished to see Nussbaum's critique of Butler described as "ad hominem": there is nothing "ad hominem" anywhere in it, as I would have expected a PhD philosopher to recognize. But I confess that what really prompted me to post something was Professor Heller's description of Heidegger's writing as "resolutely and refreshingly clear." I assume this can't be serious. It's not even clear in the German, though the leading English translations do make it worse. And, more to the point, Heidegger of course thought that in order to make explicit some of the philosophical biases built into ordinary language it was necessary to eschew and reform that language--in other words, he had a rationale for not being clear. (I don't buy the rationale, but that's a different matter.) It may be true that Heidegger is no more cryptic than John McDowell or Christopher Peacocke, among contemporary "analytic" philosophers who leap to mind, but none of them are paragons of lucid expression.

Posted by: Brian | Jun 3, 2008 1:31:21 PM

By the way, Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" remains one of the great plays of all time. I don't care what his relationship with Mussolini was, anyone whose play inspires an episode of the Twilight Zone ("Five Characters in Search of an Exit") and the movie CUBE is okay in my book...

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jun 3, 2008 12:24:44 PM

I do not believe that my "know-nothing" comment was ad hominem -- I thought it was clear that I was accusing Rick (whose scholarship I admire if not always agree with) of knowing nothing about Butler, not about being a know-nothing in general. That's why I wrote "know-nothing anti-intellectualism" in the first sentence instead of "know-nothing anti-intellectuals." I apologize to Rick if I was not as clear as I should have been.

By the way, Rick -- and I ask this genuinely -- do you really think "academic fancy dress" describes Heidegger's philosophy? It seems to me, good Left Heideggerian that I am, that his writing is resolutely and refreshingly clear. Are you perhaps simply opposed to philosophic discourse in general?

Two final thoughts. First, speaking only for myself, yes, I was far more disturbed by your comments about Butler than about Derrida precisely because she is alive.

And second, Arendt rocks.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jun 3, 2008 12:14:54 PM

Well, apparently I touched a nerve! From all of the above, I infer the following:

(1) Judith Butler has more of a following than poor Derrida, whose fans mounted no defense for Jacques. I surmise that one should only say unkind things about dead authors.

(2) Butler's fans have far more time on their hands than I do. It must be all the grading that we have to do;

(3) Tommy Crocker has a read a lot -- and perhaps wants us to know it;

(4) Perhaps the seriousness and intensity of these posts is rooted on the idea that, by picking on Butler, I am somehow bashing gays and lesbians. Crocker darkly hints that "this Rick Hills’ worldview" might somehow be opposed to "individual freedom from repressive social structures regarding gender and sexuality."

Just a bit about myself: I was second-chair counsel for respondents in Romer v Evans and drafted the respondents' brief; I was co-counsel for petitioners in Pride at Work v Granholm, and my posts attacking the Michigan Supreme Court's opinion in that case surely indicate to Mr. Crocker that my "worldview" does not include any hostility whatsoever to gay and lesbian equality. So please knock off making dark accusations of political heresy, which, in any case, generally intimidate only the craven or untenured. It is quite possible to detest Judith Butler's writing and yet be a supporter of gay equality.

(5) Kevin Jon Heller, who called me a "know-nothing," thinks that I was abominably ad hominem in suggesting that he was humorless and intolerant.

I'd suggest a truce to all of this name-calling: I should be ashamed to make an enemy via an institution as essentially frivolous as a blog post! I've never met Professor Heller, but I know his reputation from his excellent posts on Opinio Juris (I admire the advocacy on behalf of victims of the war on terrorism especially), as well as his equally excellent scholarship on criminal law.

So I gladly extend my apologies to him for any rough words about either him or Professor Butler. Yes, I dislike Butler's work intensely, but, had I known that her followers would take an offhand and admittedly frivolous expression of my dislike so personally, I surely would not posted my curmudgeonly remark, even in a medium as transient as a blog.

(5) Most heartening of all -- my critics like Arendt as much as I do. (She's one of my "good" obscure writers -- except that it is impossible for me to think of the author of "Men in Dark Times," "Eichman," "Between Past and Future," and, best of all, "Origins of Totalitarianism" as obscure. But if Butler has produced journalism of the clarity and power of "Eichman...," I'll gratefully read it)

(6) I have but one substantive response. Matthew Cole correctly observes that plain prose can also be used to justify tyranny. To which I respond...

The very plainness of the advocate of tyranny helps insure that the argument's speciousness is plain. Obscurity camouflages outrageous argument in arcana: It serves as an anesthetic of the intellectuals' sense of common decency. Here's another assertion (Memo to RH: Prepare defensive posture). The Trahison des Clercs of the 1930s was facilitated by a Franco-German tradition of social theory that cloaked brutality with academic fancy dress. Prominent French, Italian, and German intellectuals -- e.g., Claudel, Schmitt, Heidegger, Luigi Pirandello, etc -- were, I suggest, far more likely to endorse Fascist and Nazi principles than English ones precisely because the English style was clearer, less arcane, less enamoured of a need to draw sharp boundaries between intellectual language and ordinary language.

But that, of course, is a mere speculative assertion: It could be wrong. If someone has the time and inclination to dump cartloads of erudition and invective on me for hazarding such a hypothesis, please feel free!

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 3, 2008 11:17:37 AM

Given that Judith Butler has a few defenders who take such umbrage that anyone would fail to admire her work, can any of them put into plain English what they have learned from her writings? I'm reminded of what Noam Chomsky said: There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 3, 2008 11:03:11 AM

I think Jim raises a good point about the form as substance nature of Jude the Obscure's comment. For my part, I think any time Rick Hills and Mao Zedong are on the same side of an argument, its a great day for America.

Posted by: Bart | Jun 3, 2008 9:44:22 AM

The comment by the partially outed, untenured, and most likely concerned for his future professor appears to me to be in the spirit of "trying to get the arguments right" by, as Prof. Crocker pointed out, demonstrating the inefficacy of Prof. Hills's method (I am not so convinced this series of posts was). If this blog is going to allow VC style posts perhaps it should consider allowing VC style anonymous comments.

Posted by: Jim | Jun 3, 2008 9:11:14 AM

Let me state my thesis clearly from the outset. The problem with Rick Hills’ “Anti-intellectualism” post is not that it is in fact anti-intellectual, but that it is thoughtless. By thoughtless, I mean the uncritical adoption and repetition of clichés, viewpoints, beliefs or opinions. Hannah Arendt, for example, argued for the importance of critical thought in essays such as “Truth and Politics,” and attributed to thoughtlessness one of the greatest dangers to moral and political life. Arendt painfully demonstrated in works like Eichmann in Jerusalem how the thoughtless repetition of received views and clichés could contribute to great evil. George Orwell, whom Rick Hills champions, also argues against the thoughtless repetition of language. Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language,” that his defense of the English language “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax . . . or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’ . . . What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.”

Rick Hills uncritically adopts the rehashed view that Judith Butler is either “obscure” or “banal,” and from that levies an ad hominem attack against those who would defend her, derisively (and ironically?) labeling them as “intellectuals.” He switches between his construction of the “intellectual,” who, when amalgamated, become a class, and a practice of “deliberate obscurity” with which they are defined. As a class, Rick Hills asserts that intellectuals “are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humor, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truth.” I do not know who these “intellectuals” as a class are (and Rick Hills seems to limit the class to two such intellectuals – Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu). But neither do I know who Rick Hills is, other than as the proud “anti-intellectual” author of this Prawfsblawg post. I will leave it to Rick Hills to construct his class, but I will take on the task of discerning more about who Rick Hills, the author, is in the following comments.

Rick Hills comments that Butler’s supposed view that “‘performativity’ seems to be no more than the banal idea that people do stuff to exhibit their gender identity that is, in this sense, ‘socially constructed.’” But what does this demonstrate (even assuming the caricature is related to the object)? Any position can become subject to such a rhetorical deflationary reduction. I imagine Rick Hills asking of Cass Sunstein, Owen Fiss, John Dewey, Alexander Meiklejohn, John Ely and countless others why they bother writing so much about something so obvious as “deliberation is important to democracy.” Or imagine Rick Hills commenting that Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, or his Meditations on First Philosophy are not worth reading because “I think, I am” is so patently obvious. Maybe with these authors, unlike Judith Butler, the complaint would not be that their prose was obscure; but the ease with which the idea is conveyed should not matter to the vulnerability of the idea to caricature in the hands of the reductionist. Moreover, a simply glance at the large literature discussing the patently obvious, and relatively accessible in English translation, idea of “I think, I am” might indicate that the supposed patent obviousness is otherwise (see, e.g., for a small sample, Bernard Williams’ book on Descartes and Jeffrey Tlumak’s writings on the cogito). Perhaps Butler’s supposedly simple idea may reward similar careful and critical engagement. Rick Hills would have to allocate time he is unwilling to commit to the task in order to sincerely determine whether there may be more to it than the banal cliche. That an author’s writing is susceptible to the rhetorical reduction of the form Rick Hills provides in his post demonstrates nothing other than the fact that an author’s writing is susceptible to rhetorical reduction by the likes of Rick Hills (or by Jude the Obscure, outed as “Eric” who demonstrates that Rick Hills method can also be used against Rick Hills: “Stuff I have a hard time reading must be bunk, and anyone who says otherwise is intolerant, humorless, and pretentious.”).

Rick Hills argues against something he labels “intellectualism.” This idea, as used by Rick Hills, is obscure to me. Patrick O’Donnell adds some helpful context to the concept, but it is not at all clear whether Rick Hills’ use of the term arises from this context. The failure of Judith Butler to make perfectly perspicuous to Rick Hills her reading of the psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan, and her reading of Michel Foucault, in her book Bodies that Matter means that she is an intellectual whom Rick Hills is willing to define himself against as an “anti-intellectual.” If Rick Hills sincerely wants to understand Butler’s book, then he may have to first steep himself in the work of Foucault, Lacan, Freud, Nietzsche and others whose writings form the explicit and implicit background to Butler’s work. These works will prove equally difficult and often just as “obscure.” But why should the difficult prose be intrinsically objectionable? After all, if Rick Hills wants to converse with Butler about the problems and issues she addresses as they arise from an intellectual history and context in which she writes, he would expect to have to learn the language. Or is Rick Hills so “anti-intellectual” that he thinks there is something wrong with specialized vocabularies? If so, then it is any wonder he ever mastered the language of law, for if there is one overriding lesson of the 1L experience is that students must learn the language of legal discourse, a language that is nothing if it is not often “obscure” when first encountered. Law, philosophy, economics, psychoanalysis, literary theory are all disciplines that employ specialized vocabularies that may appear “obscure” to the casual reader. Perhaps these examples are too broad. Perhaps all Rick Hills means to say is that he finds Judith Butler’s book “Bodies that Matter” a poor example of philosophical argument. But to say that, he would have to engage her arguments, show how they may have been better expressed, or demonstrate their deficiencies. Though, by purporting to assign an award named after Judith Butler, and using her, perhaps personally, as a target for why he is “anti-intellectual,” taking up a stronger thesis about something he derides as “intellectualism” merely on the strength of labeling one book as “obscure” seems unwarranted.

Rick Hills’ choice of authors to ridicule has a context and history. If Rick Hills intends to say anything more than something so simplistic as “when it comes to prose style, clear prose is better than obscure prose,” then his “anti-intellectual” stance has both a context and history of meaning. One meaning, may be that being “anti-intellectual” is being “anti-homosexual,” or “anti-feminist,” since one of the aims of Butler’s writing is to demonstrate that certain norms of gender and sexuality shape how people experience their lives as embodied humans (not as mere thinking beings as Descartes emphasizes), and thus to examine how repetition makes certain forms of gender/sexuality seem natural, even if they are experienced as (or structurally function as) repressive. Attacking Butler may simply be a mask for attacking the substantive positions she adopts regarding gender and sexuality.

Rick Hills may mean to continue in the vein of his defense of Phyllis Schlafly, whose attacks on the English Department at Virginia Tech are very similar to a larger set of attacks levied against English Departments more generally. Thus, his post fits within a context of other, similar, attacks levied against Butler and literary/sexuality/queer theory more generally. These attacks focus on how some literary studies use texts to examine such topics as heterosexual social dominance, feminine subjectivity (and subjection), and the notion of being queer. Judith Butler’s work is been influential to many working on issues of gender and sexuality in the humanities and social sciences, and certainly has informed the thinking behind the courses Schafly intolerantly derides. Thus, to choose Butler is not an “innocent” choice devoid of a broader context in which criticism of her work stands for thoughtless, ideologically motivated, criticism more generally of much in the humanities.

Rick Hills attempts to hide behind the claim that his original post was nothing more than an attempt at humor. Those who object to such humor are “intellectuals,” who share the objectionable characteristic of being humorless. As an initial matter, a more accurate description of Rick Hills’ original post would be that it invited readers to participate in the public ridicule and derision of others (granting of mock “awards” for supposed publicly identifiable failures). Ridicule and mockery can be forms of humor, though hardly models of public discourse; on the playground, ridicule appeals to the most base instincts children are often instructed to avoid. As a second matter, Rick Hills claim that he was only attempting humor implies that being funny is somehow value neutral. But humor is often value-laden, political, and pointed. What was Rick Hills point when “being funny”? Given the fact that picking Judith Butler has a history and context, can his point be read as anything but political or ideological. Thus, in being “humorless” “intellectuals” are those who fail to share Rick Hills’ substantive world view, because they do not find the ridicule of Judith Butler funny. We return again to the obscurity of this Rick Hills’ worldview (is it opposed to Butler’s normative arguments seeking individual freedom from repressive social structures regarding gender and sexuality?).

Rick Hills claims to have read Bodies That Matter, for he seeks an excuse to avoid “re-reading the baroque prose” he thinks constitutes the book in favor of reading the baroque prose of Immanuel Kant (so was his complaint about the baroque?). For someone so willing to set himself apart from a whole class he disdains on the basis of this one author and the authority of one ad hominem article by Martha Nussbaum (whose assessment is “basically the same” as his), I would have preferred more examples of why Judith Butler’s writing generally is so objectionable. For example, is her self-identified “rhetorical reading” of Justice Scalia’s opinion in R.A.V. in her book Excitable Speech similarly objectionable (I rather appreciated her noticing that in a case involving hate-speech motivated cross burning, Justice Scalia identifies the Minnesota ordinance as the real cross-burner (at p. 55))? Despite his unwillingness to re-read, he claims, as we have already seen, to have gotten the banal “payoff” that Butler’s view “seems to be no more than the banal idea that people do stuff to exhibit their gender identity that is, in this sense, ‘socially constructed.’” Of course, had he read with any care, he might have noticed that there is a normative claim of some significance (whether one agrees with it or not) which he misreads. It is not that gender is “socially constructed” as he puts it, but that the repetition of social expectations and practices operates in ways that undermine the ability for one to exercise his/her autonomy and identity; thus, a certain kind of disruptive politics is necessary – one version of which is to try to get outside the vocabulary and concepts that repeat the repressive practices (whether this position is substantively compelling or right is a different matter, one which Rick Hills does not concern himself, content as he is to levy the ad hominem of “deliberate obscurity” and construct the class of “intellectuals”). Perhaps Rick Hills is not much of a reader, “anti-intellectual” as he claims to be. Indeed, this Rick Hills who rhetorically attests to his own intellectual limitations in being able to read Butler, both misreads and mischaracterizes her NY Times editorial. Rick Hills states that “she argued that obscure prose was necessary to get outside of the oppression built into ordinary language.” Nowhere in her editorial did she argue anything about “obscure prose,” nor did she use the phrase “obscure prose,” a phrase Rick Hills deploys seemingly to caricature her position (unless he really does experience “mystification at her language,” as he claims, to such a degree that he has truly lost the ability to read).

Rick Hills, in short, seems engaged in a thoughtless enterprise. He seeks first to establish an occasion to ridicule others publicly, and then in defense of that act, sets about ridiculing others by relying on rehashed clichés in the process of textually uncovering who Rick Hills is – an “anti-intellectual." Although what Rick Hills means by being an “intellectual” or an “anti-intellectual” remains obscure to me, after reflecting on Rick Hills’ post, I think he may mean that as an “anti-intellectual” he stands with Phyllis Schlafly after all – thoughtless, and quick to resort to ad hominem ridicule rather than to the “democratic decencies of conversation.”

Posted by: Tommy Crocker | Jun 3, 2008 2:31:02 AM

Kudos to Jude the Obscure. I'm no fan of intentionally difficult writing either, but condescendingly dismissing the entirety of a major scholar's work -- work that you clearly do not understand, as Matthew points out -- and then claiming that you are simply offering a "lighthearted gibe" is just pathetic. As is the backhanded ad hominem swipe at me. If saying so makes me humorless, then I will happily embrace the label.

Is this really what we have to look forward to, now that Hills is a permanent addition to the Prawfsblawg roster?

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jun 3, 2008 2:17:04 AM

"Moreover, I find a direct relationship between the academic obscurity of self-consciously 'intellectual' writer's prose and the willingness of that writer to justify the unjustifiable."

Do you just plug the text into an obscurometer and see what prints out of the ol' willingness-to-justify-the-unjustifiabledex? Or is this one of those "findings" that couldn't possibly be proven true outside the fevered rantings of a blogger?

Dig: Arendt wrote some hopelessly dense stuff (duh, she was a Kantian). On the other hand, Michelle Malkin is a colossal dumbass and managed to convince herself that interning the Japanese was legit. Dewey could write some ridiculous shit as well (duh, he was a reformed Hegelian) but he helped start the NAACP and kicked it with the suffragettes. Ted Nugent support the war in Iraq. Jurgen Habermas versus Omar al-Bashir. Camus versus Eichmann. Are we there yet?

Your argument was probably fun to write but just keep in mind before you bust it out at your next cocktail party, or like, whatever people who want to draw attention to being intellectual but not AN intellectual do when they boycott those ivory tower cocktail parties, that millions of Germans (and millions outside Germany) supported Hitler, but probably only a few hundred of them think "Dasein" even comes close to being a sensible concept.

PS: You totally don't get Butler's concept of performativity. Stuff that people do doesn't express a latent or coherent gender identity, the stuff-doing is the process through which the gender identity is produced. About the best example is a promise; when I say "I promise X" my promise comes into existence at the same time that it is referenced, but my utterance is made meaningful by some assumptions that already exist about what promises are. Likewise gendered performances construct gender at the same time they draw meaning from pre-existent ideas of gender.

But Butler does write like a jackass sometimes.

Posted by: Matthew Cole | Jun 3, 2008 1:26:01 AM

Rick --

Fun post -- this is what blogs are for. Have you read Mark Lilla's "The Reckless Mind"? Brilliant book and one that makes a very similar claim to this one. I think we can nominate Lilla to the class of really smart people who oppose intellectuals. Other nominees include Joseph Schumpeter (who considered them a class nurtured by capitalism but inherently opposed to it) and, now, Rick. Any other suggestions?

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Jun 3, 2008 12:38:19 AM

I'm completely on board with many of the criticisms underlying Rick's post. I'm no fan of intentionally (or, I suppose, unintentionally) obscure writing; think that Nussbaum's critique of Judith Butler rightly took the latter down a peg; and find a lot of the qualities Rick identifies (e.g., humorlessness, sanctimony) tiresome.

But it seems to me that this post misuses the term "intellectual" as a proxy for various other qualities that its author understandably dislikes. At the risk of propounding an anti-intellectual version of the term "intellectual", a quick review of online dictionaries confirms what I've always understood it to mean: someone who engages rationally with the world of ideas. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/intellectual

So if you like talking about ideas, even if you're not very good at it, you're an intellectual. And that means lawprofs--at least the kind of lawprofs who publish articles and engage in discussions online--are intellectuals, like it or not. I've often bristled when people apply the term to me, perhaps because I have the same associations that Rick does. But when the term is correctly understood, it's pretty innocuous. It doesn't have to mean leather patches on a tweed coat, or humorlessness self-righteousness, or obscurantism in the service of an awful tyrant.

And it certainly doesn't have to have a political valence, despite the common assumption that intellectuals are all horrible PC liberals. I know exactly one person who aggressively pushes a vision of himself as an intellectual--to the cringe-inducing point of often describing himself as one. He dresses the part (sweater vests galore), peppers casual conversation with references to math ("The Lakers will beat the Celtics with probability one."), and is a National-Review-reading, Bush-voting, regulation-abhorring conservative. Go figure.

So while I relate to many of Rick's objections, they don't seem tied to intellectualism. And I also don't think someone who pens a line like "I'd take another go at Kant's transcendental deduction" can plausibly describe himself as an anti-intellectual, at least without distorting the term past its common understanding. But I don't mean this in a pejorative way; I mean, instead, that properly understood, "intellectual" isn't an objectionable thing to be.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 3, 2008 12:11:00 AM

So, with the miracle of typepad, I can figure out who the offenders of basic etiquette are: Jude the Obscure = untenured and gutless = eric. I won't out Eric further, but this will be a lesson that the anonymous will be banned from here for bad behavior.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 2, 2008 8:47:13 PM

Shorter Rick Hills: Stuff I have a hard time reading must be bunk, and anyone who says otherwise is intolerant, humorless, and pretentious.

Posted by: Jude the Obscure | Jun 2, 2008 8:17:56 PM

It is certainly true that there are intellectuals, in a normative or moral sense, and intellectuals, descriptively speaking (say, as recruited from the ranks of specialist technicians of practical knowledge), with some of the attributes of a class, although I don’t think, pace Gouldner, that they constitute a “new” class, strictly speaking (Sartre said, I think rightly, that the intellectual belongs to the ‘middle classes’).

Sartre provides us with an early example of the intellectual in a normative sense as “someone who intervenes in problems that do not [immediately, self-interestedly] concern him. So much so that in France the word ‘intellectual,’ as a pejorative term, dates from the Dreyfus affair. In the opinion of the anti-dreyfusards, the acquittal or condemnation of Captain Dreyfus was a matter for the military tribunals and, in the final analysis, for the General Staff; the dreyfusards, by insisting on the innocence of the accused, were interfering in a domain that was outside their [technical or professional] competence.” The dreyfusards are an early instance of the moral (or ‘moralist’) and Marxist critiques of intellectuals that are, in the spirit of the Stoics, cosmopolitan and humanitarian in the best sense (although Sartre had trouble with their premature or 'false' universalization).

Sartre’s essay, “A Plea for Intellectuals” (from a series of lectures delivered in Kyoto and Tokyo in 1965) outlines what he takes to be the “work” of true intellectuals. This follows an awareness on the part of the intellectual of the social contradictions that find the ruling or privileged classes viewing him as a traitor for using the knowledge they “allowed him to acquire against them,” whilst the under-privileged classes find him suspect “because of the very culture he puts at their disposal." Sartre therefore describes the work of intellectuals in the following terms:

1. He must struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes. [….]
2. He must make use of the capital of knowledge he has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture.
3. Whenever necessary and particularly in the present conjuncture, he should help to form technicians of practical knowledge within the under-privileged classes, since these classes cannot themselves produce them, in the hope that they will become organic intellectuals of the working class…. [Here I think what Sartre intended to say can be massively misunderstood.]
4. He must recover his own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) be rediscovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle—that is, as the future of man. [Alas, Sartre’s historicism trumps his utopianism, but we might re-word it a bit to make it ‘utopian’ in William Galston’s sense as outlined in Justice and the Human Good, 1980.]
5. He should try to radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims—in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class.
6. He must act as a guardian of the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power—including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself. [….]

While a bit vague and colored strongly by their time and place, I still find much of value in these suggestions. As the late Rudolf Bahro wrote in The Alternative in Eastern Europe (English tr., 1978),

“New and higher cultures are never created without the masses, without an essential change in their condition of life, nor without their initiative, at a definite stage of maturity in the ongoing crisis. But in no known historical case did the first creative impulse in ideas and organization proceed from the masses; the trade unions do not anticipate a new civilization. The political workers’ movement was itself founded by declassed bourgeois intellectuals, which in no way means that the most active proletarian elements did not soon come to play a role of their own in the socialist parties and tend themselves to become intellectuals [the Gramscian ‘organic intellectual’]. It can also not be denied (and in fact has not been sufficiently stressed) that the modern working class is in many important respects different from former exploited classes.”

We might, with Boris Kagarlitsky in The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present (1988), descriptively define the intellectual as a “person engaged in mental work, an expert,” thus bereft of any ideological or moral content. On the other hand, the Russian concept of intelligentsia has an explicit normative or moral content, in fact, originally, it “was almost the direct opposite of the concept of ‘intellectuals.’ [….] Beryaev quite rightly protested against treatment of the two concepts as identical: ‘Our intelligentsia were a group formed out of various social classes and held together by ideas, not by sharing a common profession or economic status,’ he declared. What was the important distinctive mark of the intelligentsia? Not only with formal occupation with mental work, but also exceptional concern with European culture. But even this definition may prove inexact. Originally the word intelligent was clearly marked with moral evaluation. Polonsky wrote in the 1920s that from Boborykin’s time what was meant by the intelligentsia was ‘a historical group of people who promoted the self-awareness of Russian society.’ He considered that as a Marxist he was obliged to treat such a definition ironically, but he recognized that in nineteenth-century Russia, the intelligent ‘was a spiritual leader, a worker on behalf of social ideals.’”

In a provocative note, Kagarlitsky writes that “In France, where Berdyaev lived as an émigré, personalism became the ideology of the left-wing Catholics who the journal Espirit, an ideology which influenced the programme of the French socialist movement (the Parti Socialiste Unifié, the Parti Socialiste Française Démocratique du Travail). To the French Left Catholics are due some important ideas in the sphere of the theory of property and workers’ self-management which are share by many Marxists. In Russia, Berdyaev’s ideas could serve as an excellent basis for a dialogue between progressive Christians and the Marxist opposition. Unfortunately, many who call themselves admirers of Berdyaev are totally uninterested in what he actually said and thought.”

Kagarlitsky has much of interest to say about the Russian intelligenty, pointing out, for example, that both Gramsci and Sartre “tried to rethink the concept of ‘intellectual,’ treating it as very similar to the Russian concept intelligent,” hence the “oppositional attitude and left-wing radicalism” Sartre outlined “as characteristics of the true intellectual.”

In short, with Rick, I am “anti-intellectual” in one sense, that is, when that intellectual is the “false” or "watch-dog" intellectual, one who reflexively defends the dominant class or the powers-that-be against ever greater instantiation of the triune ideals of the French Revolution or against the universalization of individual human flourishing and self-realization (say, in the Marxist conception of the good life as detailed by Jon Elster). But I look favorably upon the “true” intellectual in the Sartrian sense, those intellectuals identical to the traditional Russian intelligentsia as discussed by Kagarlitsky, intellectuals of the sort that initiated the Catholic Worker movement, or those behind the theory and praxis of Liberation Theology, or who founded the Highlander Folk School in the Tennessee mountains, or the Congress of Racial Equality, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), or the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), or the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, or the Greens in West Germany, or the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa, the leaders of the East-Central European Velvet Revolutions (Michnik, Konrad, Havel, Kuron...), and so forth and so on. These “true” intellectuals are increasingly few and far between in this country, as Russell Jacoby argued with some force in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987). Be that as it may, I also believe intellectuals should engage in something akin to what Gandhi called, after Tolstoy, “bread labor,” meaning here the performance of a least some physical labor toward the meeting of basic human needs, as a way of softening if not helping overcome the traditional division of labor between those who “work” principally with their minds, and those who labor largely with their hands.

If one would like to read what Pierre Bourdieu thought to be the role of the "critical" or "collective" intellectual, please see the little book of essays that "were written or spoken as contributions to [social] movements and movements of resistance...:" Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market (1998).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 2, 2008 7:51:19 PM

Rick: I'm glad you're blogging here full-time. This is a brilliant post, well-written and fun to read. I hope more lawprofs take up your invitation to speak in plain terms.

Posted by: Stacy | Jun 2, 2008 6:31:27 PM

This silly disagreement and the Leiter-Hills spat about ... whatever it was are very off-putting to students and practicioners considering academic careers. They make legal academia look insular and unecessarily caustic. Is that not contrary to one of the purposes of this blog?

(Typo corrected).

Posted by: Mike | Jun 2, 2008 5:22:31 PM

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